Monday, May 20, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: A Helpful Media or Not?

Most humans are now connected as part of a global communications web that extends to every nation and nearly every point on Earth. Whatever the channel, those communication lines are often organized by media companies. These days it’s important to broaden our perspective of what defines media. Clearly we are well beyond the days of broadcast and newspaper domination. Internet communications, in a multitude of forms, continues to grow. Websites, blogs, podcasts, TV stations, radio, newspapers, and magazines – these entities act as agenda setters. They seek to define the world from a certain perspective. Individual Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are also used by agenda setters.

So, what impact would the media have in an extraterrestrial Direct First Contact situation? Here I define Direct First Contact as an alien civilization coming to our solar system to say hello.  Would the media be helpful or would they cause problems? The scenario would probably determine the answers to those questions. And since any First Contact scenario is pure speculation, trying to define exact reactions is probably a waste of time. However, we know enough about how our media responds to the current world environment to make some generalizations.

There are several ways that the media could be very helpful in a Direct First Contact event. The web of video and information sharing is so robust these days that an event in a reasonably large city, almost anywhere in the world, can be seen live anywhere else in a matter of minutes.  This makes the human media networks a great way to reach all of humanity at once. Media sharing, especially through live television feeds, are quick, adaptable and redundant. The adaptable part comes in the diversity of sources. A protest in Egypt could come from a traditional network TV camera. It could also be streamed live with a $25 web cam. The media outlets have become much more adaptable in using alternative video sources. This also helps with redundancy. If one media outlet is not doing its job, someone else will likely pick up the slack. If none of the traditional media outlets meet the demands of news viewers, individual people will provide video and reporting. That was shown in many of the Arab spring protests when the traditional media had a tough time gathering video. Making a Direct First Contact event a live television event connects the world to First Contact and takes away the veil of secrecy.

The media could be helpful in explaining First Contact. They would be the first source of information about the visiting extraterrestrials for the majority of humans. They would also report on how human government and institutions respond to First Contact. The media would be essential in educating the public. Such education would be important to minimize fears. There is a flipside- the media could also prepare humans, if they should be fearful. If the world media outlets are doing their job they should be critical of how governments and institutions are responding. The media can provide feedback from the public about how average humans feel about First Contact. Media outlets can conduct surveys to help quantify human reactions.

However, as we all know, human media outlets have their weaknesses. Competition, a driving force behind the success of a free media, can also make a mess. If media outlets act in a rash manner they could take rumors seriously. There is one thing that I can guarantee in any First Contact scenario- there will be plenty of rumors and bad information going around. It may take a few days or weeks to manifest, but incorrect information would undoubtedly bubble beneath the surface of the public conversation. In an environment where everyone is keyed up and nervous, such bad information could be quite destructive.

If media outlets promote incorrect information and get facts wrong they could do more damage than good. Most humans will get their information about First Contact from the media. In a sense, the media will help to determine long-term human reaction. If we live in a fearful, rumor-filled world we will not make good decisions. The resulting actions could hurt the human civilization for generations to come. The initial decisions in any First Contact situation would be critical.

So, how do we keep the media on the good side of communication practices? When it comes to the free media, that responsibility will be largely up to them. The professionals running news organizations and internet sites will need to understand that the importance of their jobs has just grown immensely. They will need to step up to the challenge. It can be done. The American TV networks did an amazing job of handling the 9-11 terrorist strike. I was a first hand witness to the crazy rumors that pop up when people are scared and agitated. The media managed to step up to the plate. They dispelled rumors. They focused on facts.

There are ways that the people controlling First Contact can help. Governments and institutions should make all information available as soon as possible. Secrets will only create bigger problems. Transparency would be critical. The best approach would be to put all the available information out there immediately. If it’s too complicated for one news conference, put it up in its entirety on the web. Have live streaming of all meetings on First Contact issues. Open up the entire process to the public. Don’t rely on the media to explain things- provide trusted experts who can put such issues in perspective.

Information in a Direct First Contact scenario would likely be incredibly complicated and perhaps beyond our initial understanding. Aliens with the technological ability to visit our solar system would probably have a system of science far advanced of ours. If they were willing to share such information we would probably need many years of education to even begin to understand. That doesn’t mean the process needs to be kept behind closed doors. Putting the information out there could help the process- by allowing many different thinkers, from many different perspectives, to consider the ideas.

First Contact could help the human civilization and it could hurt humans and that’s just assuming that the aliens themselves are neutral. We are quite often our own worst enemy. The media will have a huge role to play in First Contact. Here’s hoping that they will be up to the task.

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